What is Cooperative Learning? - Definition & Theory

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

This lesson will teach you about cooperative learning, which has been linked to better social and academic development in students. We'll explore the basics and some of the underlying theories that support this instructional methodology.

What is Cooperative Learning?

We humans are fundamentally social animals. This doesn't necessarily mean we are all extroverted people who love to work in large groups and get a charge out of socializing. What this means is that throughout our history we have evolved to work in groups to maximize our abilities. Some anthropologists theorize this was a deciding factor in the species Homo Sapiens winning out over the Neanderthals - our larger groups were more resistant to challenges by virtue of communal support. Larger groups allowed for more hunting, more gathering, and more caring for the sick and elderly. We've spent millions of years flourishing as social creatures, so it should come as no surprise that we learn best in this manner as well.

Cooperative learning refers to small, group-based instruction in which students work together to achieve a learning goal. This is utilized at virtually every school, at every grade level, around the world. There are reasons to this, which we'll cover in the Supporting Theory section, but for now just understand that it is an extremely common and effective pedagogical tool.

Cooperative learning in the classroom
Cooperative learning in the classroom

Cooperative learning can be further understood by comparing it to the two other main learning structures. Individualist learning involves students working autonomously towards their instructional goal. This style certainly has its merits, as it helps students to promote self-discipline and intrinsic motivation. Alternatively, competitive learning is when students vie against each other to achieve a learning goal. While competitive learning has quite a few detractors, when exercised properly it can help students develop a healthy competitive drive and provide extrinsic motivation. In cooperative and individualist learning, students are assessed against a rubric to determine success, while competitive learning pits student performance against each other, such as grading an assignment on a curve.

Types of Cooperative Learning

Utilizing cooperative learning in the classroom isn't quite as simple as assigning students to groups and then letting them work. Without properly planning how to incorporate cooperative learning, you'll end up herding cats, which is adorable but frustrating. Instead, a teacher should first determine if cooperative learning is best suited for achieving the desired learning outcome. If cooperative learning is the best method, then the teacher should choose from the three main types of cooperative learning.

Formal cooperative learning involves organized and preplanned cooperative learning efforts. It is up to the teacher if she wants to enforce formal dress, but a bunch of third graders in black tie would be delightful. In formal cooperative learning, students are frequently assigned to groups by the teacher to ensure proper group dynamics, and then these groups work toward a shared learning goal. The role of the teacher in this process is primarily in planning and organizing the cooperative learning environment and assignment then monitoring students' learning to maximize outcomes. Providing ongoing assessment is vital to ensure students are working effectively and learning is achieved.

Informal cooperative learning is a common tactic that breaks students into temporary groups in an ad-hoc fashion. These groups may last for a few minutes to a whole class period. The students in this format are still working towards a shared learning goal, but the atmosphere is less controlled and planned. As such, the teacher's role is lessened when compared to formal cooperative learning. Though the teacher still provides the activity and monitors student performance, the goals for informal cooperative learning are generally of a much shorter term. Whereas formal cooperative learning may be utilized for projects spanning days or weeks, informal cooperative learning is best used to help reinforce specific concepts by having students engage in a discussion for a period of time and then produce an answer.

Cooperative base groups are when students are organized into long-term groups with set membership. These groups are organized by the teacher to ensure proper balance of social and academic abilities. The teacher's responsibilities include ensuring a time is scheduled for each group to meet, preferably daily, tracking the group's progress, assigning specific tasks, and encouraging self-reflection by members of the group. The group members are responsible to each other, helping to make sure they are completing their work, understanding instructional concepts, and providing moral and social support. The longer the group remains stable, the more committed students become to each other's success and the greater influence they have on each other's behavior. If properly utilized, cooperative base groups can greatly influence students' performance, attendance, and quality of education.

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